Friday 29 September 2017

Later Life Learning Week Three: The Seduction and Responses to Fascism

"Even in the worst of times, there are people who care."
—Ervin Staub The Roots of Goodness and Resistance to Evil

"When you see the suffering it brings, you have to be mad, blind or a coward to resign yourself to the plague."

—Albert Camus The Plague

"We do not believe in the victory of the stronger, but the stronger in spirit."
Sophie Scholl 


 I might recommend a review of the 2014 New York production 
of Cabaret

 "Cabaret" is … takes place largely in a specific Berlin cabaret, circa 1930, in which decadence and sexual ambiguity were just part of the ambience (like the women mud-wrestlers who appeared between acts). This is no ordinary musical. Part of its success comes because it doesn't fall for the old cliché that musicals have to make you happy. Instead of cheapening the movie version by lightening its load of despair, director Bob Fosse has gone right to the bleak heart of the material and stayed there well enough to win an Academy Award for Best Director."

Roger Ebert, 1972

"Though most Gestapo files were destroyed before war's end, one revealing discovery from intact archives in the town of Wurzburg indicates that the secret police--far from randomly unleashing terror--spent much of its time responding to denunciations by ordinary citizens against their neighbors." Review about The Nazis: A Warning from History  by Laurence Rees 


For my review of a new book, The Cost of Courage and the television series, Un Village Francais
 see the French Resistance

Sophie Scholl: The Final Days
"Filmmaker Marc Rothemund utilizes long-buried historical records to reconstruct the last six days in the life of renowned German anti-Nazi activist Sophie Scholl (Julia Jentsch) in an Academy Award-nominated feature that earned star Julia Jentsch a Best Actress award at both the 2005 Lolas and the 2005 Berlin International Film Festival. The year is 1943 and Adolf Hitler's devastating march across Europe has resulted in the formation of the White Rose, an underground resistance movement born in Munich and dedicated to the fall of the Third Reich. Despite being one of the only female members in the White Rose movement, Sophie Scholl's conviction is strong and her will unbreakable. Eventually arrested by the Gestapo for distributing pamphlets on campus alongside her brother Hans, Sophie boldly maintains her ground by calling for freedom and personal responsibility and never once backing down even in the face of certain, inescapable death." ~ Jason Buchanan

I review Not I Memoirs of a German Childhood
Joachim Fest and his father
by Joachim Fest

A memorial concert reawakens the story of an artistic uprising in the Nazi concentration camp, Terezin, where a chorus of 150 inmates confronts the Nazis face-to-face - and sings to them what they dare not say.

"Defiant Requiem is an incredible story of the Nazi concentration camp at Terezin, wherein many talented Czech artists were imprisoned – and it specifically tells the story of one Czech composer, Raphael Schächter, who's idea it was to lead a performance of Verdi's "Requiem" inside the camp. And it tells the parallel story of music conductor Murry Sidlin who decades later went back to Terezin with the Orchestra of Terezin Remembrance, specifically to perform "Requiem" again, quite beautifully, this time with survivors from the camp. I don't really have the words – let me just say this story was completely new to me and had a profound impact on me, particularly the incredible interviews with the survivors.

When the film was over, the whole crowd stayed still and silent all the way through the final credit, before breaking out in applause. It was such a profound experience to be educated on something completely new relating to the Holocaust, and for the subject matter to be told with such depth and compassion, but also restraint. The story was sensational enough, the filmmakers wisely chose not to be manipulative (which would have been easy in this case) – they just told you and showed you this story with honesty, clarity and genuine beauty….This is what true documentary film making should always be like." A film-goer's review.

I recommend a powerful article by novelist Rachel Seiffert the author of The Dark Room and The Boy in Winter. For one of the interlocking stories of The Dark Room, you might wish to see my review of Lore


Sunday 17 September 2017

Remembering the Communist Experience in Romania and Bulgaria, Part One: Partial Amnesia

This review that originally appeared in Critics at Large is reproduced on this site because it reveals how the Communist regimes in Romania and Bulgaria followed the blueprint established in the Soviet Union, a major subject of  That Line of Darkness: The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden (Encompass Editions,2013).
Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, centre, in his final address to the people on Dec. 21, 1989.

“The things they do to you (in the camps), the power they have over you. It throws off your sense of right and wrong.” – Olen Steinhauer, The Confession
One of the most remarkable exchanges I encountered this summer from my time in the lower Danube was the personal family story from one of the Romanian guides. His father, a doctor, originally supported the regime of Nicolae Ceaușescu until his father was conscripted into the army and one of his odious duties was to accompany the feared security police on missions in which they executed individuals.(His father would subsequently turn against Ceaușescu by supporting his wife who, coming from a humble background, had suffered under the regime.) He also revealed how his mother and her fellow workers were bused in to cheer Ceaușescu as he appeared on his balcony for the last time. The guide’s uncle was a member of the Army ordered to shoot anyone in the crowd who did not appear to be cheering. Was he to shoot his sister? This was a pivotal point in alienating the Army. The despised dictator lost his support and as a result he was finished. Our guide pointed out that balcony where Ceausescu delivered a speech that was interrupted by taunts from the crowd. It was a breathtaking moment, but this guide was an almost solitary voice among the local citizens I heard over the last two years.

The most widespread impression acquired from my visits to Romania and Bulgaria, especially the latter, was the ambivalence from a number of local guides about living under Communism. They acknowledge the difficulties of living with food and electrical shortages, the restrictions on speech and travel and the omnipotent power of the security police. These sentiments came close to appearing pro forma that was likely designed to appeal to the mostly American tourists. To me the guides appeared more energized when they spoke about the security of full employment and good pensions; for a number of them it seemed that the benefits outweighed the costs although that view was rarely explicitly stated.

Saturday 16 September 2017

Later Life Learning Week Two: The Seduction and Horror of War

President Woodrow Wilson
Siegfried Sassoon

“You will see the effect upon people. They will acclaim it with enthusiasm; everybody is already looking forward to the first onslaught—so dull have their lives become.
—Herman Hesse, Damian

"One of the most troubling reasons men love war is the love of destruction, the thrill of killing...all you do is move the finger so imperceptibly, just a wish flashing across your mind like a shadow, not even a full brain synapse, and poof, in a blast of sound and energy and light a truck or a house or even people disappear, everything flying and settling back into dust."
William Broyles, "Why Men Love War, Esquire, November 1984, veteran of the Vietnam War

Oh! What a Lovely War is an every-man-for-himself adaptation of Charles Chilton's 1963 play, as staged in London by Joan Littlewood. The tragedy of World War I is redefined in bawdy music-hall terms, beginning with a verbal free-for-all involving the Crowned Heads of Europe. The war is presented as the "new attraction" at the Brighton Amusement Pier, complete with syrupy cheer-up songs, shooting galleries, free prizes and a scoreboard toting up the dead. Throughout the proceedings, the camera concentrates on a middle-class family, whose five sons end up as cannon fodder. The final image is a veddy proper British picnic on a graveyard. Of the many fleeting satiric images parading past the camera, one of the most indelible is the sight of several generals playing leapfrog as the world all around them goes to hell in a handbasket. The awesome all-star cast includes Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, Maggie Smith, John Gielgud, Michael Redgrave, Jack Hawkins, John Mills, Susannah York, Dirk Bogarde and Phyllis Calvert. We haven't seen this many Englishmen in one place since the last Wimbledon match. The whole affair was supervised by Richard Attenborough, making his directorial debut.


The picture of the country 100 years ago is often unwholesome in ways that, again, resonate with current turmoil. Prejudice against immigrants ran high. Anti-German feelings were virulent, and Wilson issued orders requiring the registration of all German-born residents (a program administered by the 22-year-old J. Edgar Hoover).
Americans were encouraged to spy on and report one another for violations of voluntary rationing programs or failure to buy war bonds. The government engaged in a sophisticated large-scale propaganda campaign enforcing loyalty. A poster shown in the film asks, in menacing capital letters, “Are You 100% American?”
Watching “The Great War” can give you a sense of a full circle of events. If this was how America became the world’s pre-eminent power, is this also how it surrenders the role?
From a review in the New York Times : "‘The Great War,’ When America Took the World Stage"

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Based on Pat Barker's novel of the same name, Regeneration  (later renamed Behind the Lines when released in DVD) tells the story of soldiers of World War One sent to an asylum for emotional troubles. Two of the soldiers meeting there are Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, two of England's most important WW1 poets but the most interesting exchanges occur between Sassoon and his physician William Rivers at Craiglockart Hospital where British officers suffering from severe shell shock were sent.
Testament of  Youth

Anchored by an extraordinary performance from actress Alicia Vikander, James Kent’s Testament of Youth bears comparison to many other superbly mounted costume dramas backed by the BBC, but this one has a special distinction: it chronicles the horrors that World War I inflicted on a generation of young English people from a woman’s perspective.

Though the war was followed by a slew of books about it, Vera Brittain’s account of her own experiences has been regarded as unique. It did not appear in the war’s immediate aftermath, partly because the aspiring writer didn’t know how to deal with her memories. She first tried writing a novel, which she shelved as a failure, a judgment she also made against a subsequent attempt to make a book by fictionalizing journals and letters. It was only later, inspired by filmmaker John Grierson’s coining of the term “documentary,” that she decided to craft a nonfiction account of her experiences, which became an instant bestseller upon its publication in 1933.